On Monday I served as guest lecturer in AAAS10, Introduction to African American Studies. Professors Henry Louis Gates and Larry Bobo invited me to discuss the history of African American Protestantism in the United States, a daunting task for a fifty minute time slot. Yet the assigned readings, which included Albert Raboteau’s Slave Religion and James Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power, allowed me to focus on black religion as a tool of liberation from oppression.
Among the most pervasive themes in the history of black Christianity is the Children of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. Due to the shared characteristics of enslaved Hebrews and enslaved Africans in America, African Americans gravitated toward the exodus motif for both spiritual and political reasons.
Spiritually, the narrative of God aligning with those on the underside of Pharaoh’s privilege and power instilled a sense of humanity to those dehumanized by the brutality of America’s peculiar institution. African American Christians joined together in imagined communities of God’s elect who were devoted to the One who has the power to end Pharaoh’s reign of terror.
Politically, the exodus narrative provided an ethical framework for political organizing. Enslaved people were devoid of land, freedom, citizenship, or any other form of political recognition—you may recall that in 1857 Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney ruled in the infamous Dred Scott decision that current or former slaves and their descendants had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Nevertheless, imagined spiritual communities quickly transformed into a shared identity and political alliances with other African-Americans living under what W.E.B. Du Bois referred to as “the color line.”
The spiritual and political buoyancy derived from the exodus motif helped African Americans navigate the shifting waters of American racial injustice. From chattel slavery in the nineteenth century to legalized racial segregation in the twentieth, this image of a God who stands with the oppressed coupled with Jesus’ moral ethic of social inversion (i.e., the first shall be last, and the last shall be first) served as the bedrock of black liberation thought.
The oppositional identity that some now view in the early writings of James Cone must, then, be placed in this proper context. As institutions, the development of black churches was a reaction to the dehumanizing institutional logics of slavery and segregation. Thus, black theology of liberation captured the many ways black people sought to reconcile a loving God in the face of racial hatred. God partnering with humanity to overthrow oppression was one of many theological orientations.
All theology is contextual. This was true of John Calvin in sixteenth century Geneva, John Wesley in eighteenth century Oxford, and James Cone in late twentieth century United States of America. Cone wrote with a fire and passion in 1969 reflective of the cities that were burning, the religious and political leaders being assassinated, and the pain emanating from the wounded black freedom struggle. To read his earliest work today with eyes born years after the volatile moment in which he was writing is to miss the acuity of his thought and the radically appropriate nature of his Christology.
To be sure, just as American society has shifted its position on race in very important ways, so have many African American Christians, including Professor Cone. This does not mean, however, that people have ceased looking for a God that can deliver and set free. Pharaoh may have a new face. For many black, brown, and/or poor folk in America, Egypt is the multi-billion dollar prison industrial complex. For African American Christians, dare I say all Christians, committed to liberation from violence and oppression, we continue to try to reconcile a hope in the unseen with the grim realities which surround us. This is why many of us continue to look toward a God who has the power to drown Pharaoh and his army of injustice in the Red Sea.
Jonathan L. Walton is the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in Harvard’s Memorial Church.